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Concourse 2

The future in the past

future in the past 
he was going to be a botanist

You may like to look at the guides to future forms before tackling this guide.  Then again, you may not.  If you are content that you have a reasonable understanding of the seven or so forms English uses to talk about the future, then we can go on.

reported and direct speech

Reported or indirect speech vs. the future in the past

You should also bear in mind the guide to reported or indirect speech because a great deal of what is there impinges on this area.  This is especially true for phenomena such as back-shifting tenses and the changes made to modal verbs such as will.  If that's unclear, go and look at that guide now.
There are times when we need to discuss plans that were made or undertakings given for the future seen from the viewpoint of the past.
For example, if you mentally form an intention such as
    I'm going to call him tomorrow
and then later want to discuss the intention, you might use an expression such as
    I was going to call him
That's not the same as using reported or indirect speech, but it is very similar.  By the same token, indirect speech often includes such examples as
    He said he would come, He promised to write to me
    She undertook to have finished it by Friday
which are all ways of reporting what was said, written or implied.
This guide is not concerned with repeating what is explained in the one on indirect or reported speech.


The 5 main ways of talking about the future from a past perspective

There are five main ways English uses to see the future from the perspective of the past.  All of them express the same views of the future that are expressed by similar constructions used either to talk about the future proper or to refer to some current intention, willingness or plan which will affect the future.
If you would like to remind yourself of the four most common ways to talk about future time in English, see the guide to four future forms.


was/were going to

This is sometimes called the unfulfilled intention construction.  If you have an intention to do something but your plans are thwarted, you may well express the situation as something like:
    I was going to take a week off but there's too much to do
Equally, if someone uses will/shall to express current willingness such as:
    I'll let you have the money soon
but the promise is not kept, the person owed the money might well express the situation as:
    You were going to let me have the money soon
Notice how polite, even tentative, this can sound compared with, e.g.
    You promised to let me have the money


past progressive

This parallels the use of the present progressive used for plans and arrangement currently in place.  For example, in narrative style we might find:
    They were meeting in Paris the following week
Not exactly reported speech but a very similar function conceptually.
This form is also often used to complain about arrangements broken or forgotten:
    Did you forget that we were having lunch together today?


was/were about to

Used in the present, this marginal modal form implies an almost certain imminent action:
    I am about to lose my temper
    She is about to go to the airport

Occasionally, however, the action is cancelled or postponed (that's life) so we get a similar construction, often with but (to explain a reason) or when (to introduce an intervening act):
    I was about to lose my temper but he apologised so nicely that I calmed down
    She was about to go to the airport when the boss rang to say the trip was off

A parallel structure is another marginal modal, be on the point of, as in, e.g.
    I was on the point of losing my temper when she apologised



We are not here discussing forms such as They said they would come at 6.  That is simply the change to the verb will used for predicted futures which is a common event when it is reported at a later time.

The modal would is used as the past of will in many situations where will is used to make firm future predictions.  The difference, of course, is that when the prediction is in the past we usually know whether it turned out to be accurate.  For example:

present prediction past prediction
Computers will get faster and cheaper Computers would get faster and cheaper
She will be a farmer She would be a farmer
She won't be much good at it She wouldn't be much good at it

The use of would to refer to a future in the past is also common in the context of projecting mental processes such as expect, think, imagine, guess, assume, hope, suspect etc.  For example:

present projection past projection
I suspect it will rain I suspected it would rain
I hope she will see sense I hoped she would see sense
They imagine I won't understand They imagined I wouldn't understand

There's not much that's mysterious in either use because the form is closely analogous to the reported speech use exemplified above.

There is a rather formal use of would which refers to the future in the past.  This form is commonly used in narratives, often to anticipate the plot in some way and grab the reader's attention.
Here's an example:
    She very soon would feel guilty about what she had done
The future forms proper that this parallels are not always easy to identify and quite varied but they include things like:
    She is going to feel guilty about what she has done
    She will feel guilty about what she has done
    She will be feeling guilty about what she has done


was/were + to

This parallels the formal obligation form.  For example:
    The children are to come to school 10 minutes early next Monday
    You are to present the report at the next board meeting
If the obligation remains unfulfilled after the event, it is often discussed along with the reason for the failure using but (or a similar concessive such as however etc.):
    The children were to come to school ten minutes early but the bus broke down
    I was to present the report at the next board meeting.  However, it was cancelled at the last minute
See the footnote for another example.

time line

time lines

None of the above (with the exception of the rarer would form) are particularly difficult to understand (or learn) but time lines always help:

future in the past time line 1

future in the past time line 2

There is a very short test on this.

For the forms under 4 and 5 above, you may like to consider this bit from Oscar Wilde:

She was thinking of Prince Charming, and, that she might think of him all the more, she did not talk of him, but prattled on about the ship in which Jim was going to sail, about the gold he was certain to find, about the wonderful heiress whose life he was to save from the wicked, red-shirted bushrangers. For he was not to remain a sailor, or a super-cargo, or whatever he was going to be. Oh, no! A sailor's existence was dreadful. Fancy being cooped up in a horrid ship, with the hoarse, hump-backed waves trying to get in, and a black wind blowing the masts down, and tearing the sails into long screaming ribands! He was to leave the vessel at Melbourne, bid a polite good-bye to the captain, and go off at once to the gold-fields. Before a week was over he was to come across a large nugget of pure gold, the largest nugget that had ever been discovered, and bring it down to the coast in a waggon guarded by six mounted policemen. The bushrangers were to attack them three times, and be defeated with immense slaughter. Or, no. He was not to go to the gold-fields at all. They were horrid places, where men got intoxicated, and shot each other in bar-rooms, and used bad language. He was to be a nice sheep-farmer, and one evening, as he was riding home, he was to see the beautiful heiress being carried off by a robber on a black horse, and give chase, and rescue her. Of course she would fall in love with him, and he with her, and they would get married, and come home, and live in an immense house in London. Yes, there were delightful things in store for him. But he must be very good, and not lose his temper, or spend his money foolishly. She was only a year older than he was, but she knew so much more of life. He must be sure, also, to write to her by every mail, and to say his prayers each night before he went to sleep. God was very good, and would watch over him. She would pray for him too, and in a few years he would come back quite rich and happy.
The lad listened sulkily to her, and made no answer. He was heart-sick at leaving home.
Yet it was not this alone that made him gloomy and morose.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Chapter 6, available from

There are two aspects to note:

  1. Wilde uses the were/was to form to talk in the past about Jim's imagined (rather than planned) future.  This is an effective literary device.

  2. In the final part, we know that she is actually saying all this to Jim because we have The lad listened so the would here is a form of reporting the verb will.